By KAY MATTHEWS
No one at the Taos Indian Water Rights Settlement (Abeyta) NEPA Scoping Meeting on October 21 expected anyone to adhere to the moderator’s admonition to constrain their comments to implementation and process issues. And for the most part, no one did. As expected, they expressed their frustration and opposition to the terms of the settlement, essentially stating that “No Action” would be the only acceptable alternative in the prospective Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), whichever analysis the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) chooses in the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process.
But before we could get to everyone’s complaints, Kate Patterson, of Environmental Planning Services, provided some project background, explaining that working with the BOR her company will prepare a programmatic NEPA document that analyzes the effects of the Mutual Benefit Projects designated by the settlement—groundwater wells, water storage, and a stream gage—will have on the human and natural environment. The BOR doesn’t construct the projects but provides the financial assistance in the form of grants for the parties to the settlement to “plan, permit, design, engineer, and construct” them.
Thus far, of the planned 14 (or more) wells only two have been drilled: a Town of Taos well and a test supply well for the El Prado Water and Sanitation District (Midway Well #1, done under a NEPA classification called Categorical Exclusion, or CE). Forty-acre grid cells have been specified for the other supply and mitigation wells, where specific locations will later be determined. The proposed Acequia Storage and Recovery (ASR) well for Arroyo Seco Arriba Project is still on hold, as the Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco has not decided whether to accept the ASR well or a reservoir, as stipulated in the settlement. The Office of the State Engineer (OSE) will issue test well permits, then a NEPA analysis will occur, a test well will be drilled, and if the test well is approved, the same procedure will be conducted for a permanent well.
The scoping period has been extended until November 20, 2019. A second public meeting was held on October 22 in Taos, and written comments can be mailed to: Bureau of Reclamation; Attn: Rebecca Braz; 555 Broadway NE, Suite 100; Albuquerque, NM 87102. Or via e-mail: BOR-sha-AAOTaosNEPA@usbr.gov.
Now to the public comments. The Guardians of Taos Water (GOT) turned out in force and many of them spoke. Most of their concerns focused on the pumping of deep water wells: if it will affect existing, shallower wells; that the amount of water being pumped could support unwanted and unnecessary development; and that the co-mingling of treated groundwater with acequia and stream water is an assault of “Mother Earth.” Several people claimed that the proposed El Prado supply wells will have a capacity of 20 times what is currently being pumped and that the wells that remain near Taos Pueblo’s Buffalo Pasture, which the settlement is supposed to protect, could actually impact the wetland because of this increased supply.
Another issue that was raised many times is how the settlement was promulgated, essentially “behind closed doors.” Even when the terms of the agreement were presented to the acequia associations or domestic well associations, which will be responsible for maintaining the mitigation wells, many parciantes did not understand the ramifications of this complicated project or felt they were forced to sign off by lawyers supposedly representing their interests. Jai Cross, a commissioner on the Atalaya acequia in Arroyo Hondo, said he felt that most of the signatures are actually invalid, due to misrepresentation. Daniel Escalante raised the same issue, along with that of being able to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the wells once the funding provided by the BOR runs dry. Rio Hondo resident Phaedra Greenwood questioned the settlement’s failure to address how climate change will affect water supply.
Several other speakers—Rick Brown and Cliff Bain—claimed that the supply and mitigation wells stipulated by the settlement are unnecessary if we learn to live within our water supply. Bain suggested that the Abeyta Adjudication has been “spun into a development scheme,” with El Prado’s increase in water supply undermining planned, incremental growth. He also complained that it appears there will be only two alternatives in the EA or EIS—No Action or full implementation of the settlement. A representative of Amigos Bravos also raised the question of the number and extent of possible alternatives in the analysis.
Arroyo Seco parciante Bill Woodall, who I’ve quoted previously in La Jicarita, addressed the issue of feasibility, specifically the need to run a pump 24/7 during irrigation season to operate the proposed ASR well. He ran the numbers and came up with a cost of $7,000 a month in electricity. Who will pay for this? His acequia would go bankrupt if burdened with the cost. The Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco voted this project down. Woodall became emotional when he questioned why, as he asked previously in La Jicarita, this settlement is “leading people into a cycle of water use and growth that is unsustainable.”
One of the last speakers affiliated with GOT asked that there be a moratorium placed on all well drilling while the settlement is renegotiated. I would venture to say that most of the people in the room supported that sentiment, despite the government’s repeated admonition that it’s a “done deal.” Patterson did announce that the Utton Transboundary Resources Center will hold a meeting, separate from the NEPA process, to address concerns and comments relating to the Settlement Agreement. But just as a recent meeting relating to the Aamodt Settlement was held as “informational,” how are any concerns going to be addressed when the terms of the settlement are “not going to be revisited.” Several acequias continue to express their opposition to operating mitigation wells assigned to them—as the Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco voted down the ASR well—but settlement spokespeople have said that other parties, such as the Town of Taos and El Prado, would step in to be the managers. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the affected acequias and parciantes can actually demonstrate self-determination in an agreement that essentially denied them a voice.